Vocal Disasters Mar the ROF’s La donna del lago

ItalyItaly ROF 3 – Rossini: La donna del lago Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Comunale of Bologna/Michele Mariotti (conductor). New production with Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège and dedicated to the memory of Gae Aulenti. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, 11.8.2016. (JB)

Photo credit: studio Amati Bacciardi.
La donna del lago (c) Amati Bacciardi

Giacomo V (James V of Scotland) in disguise as Uberto – Juan Diego Flórez
Duglas – Marco Mimica
Rodrigo – Michael Spyres
Elena – Salome Jicia
Malcolm – Varduhi Abrahamyan
Albina – Ruth Inesta
Serano/Bertram – Francisco Brito
Elena as an old woman – Giusi Merli
Malcolm as an old man – Alessandro Baldinotti

Stage Director – Damiano Michieletto
Set – Paolo Fantin
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti

It has never really surprised me that south of the Scottish border, in the country (still, for the moment) known as the United Kingdom, the novels of Walter Scott have only rarely enjoyed the literary esteem they enjoy in their native Scotland.  What is perhaps surprising is the very high regard with which nineteenth century France, Spain and Italy enjoyed Scott’s novels.  Those countries often read Scott as a kindred romantic soul.  (Another English / Scots clash there: romantic would never be a word the English used of the Scots.)

No sooner had Her Majesty sworn in Theresa May as the new prime minister and head of the conservative party, than Mrs May made a pretty little speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street, reminding the nation that the full name of her party was the Conservative and Union Party.  Moreover it was her priority to get real (not her word) about the Union bit. (Cue to Clara Butt singing Land of Hope and Glory?)  Mrs May didn’t mean Union with Europe.  Dear me, no; two sentences earlier or later (I forget the order, but order never matters in farce) Mrs May said she would be respecting the Brexit vote even though she herself voted Remain. (She didn’t restate her being against Brexit.)

O Rossini thou should’st have been living at this hour!  Just imagine what a witty musical farce the maestro of Pesaro would have made of these unintentional comedians contradicting themselves.

Instead I have to ask you to settle for the lesser known but equally effective, romantic Rossini, which inaugurated the lengthy marriage of Walter Scott to Italian Opera Houses.

Never mind that ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was a Scott poem.  His novels were imbibed by aristocratic ladies everywhere, including the Bourbon Court of Naples.

Domenico Barbaja, the wily General Manager of the San Carlo Opera, who had just taken on Rossini as his Artistic Director and Chief Conductor, had little trouble persuading the composer that the interweaving of the romantic and the mystical in a Scott poem would be a sure-sell to all those powerful ladies of the Court and hence to the rest of the city.

Further more, the Scott poem came with an enthusiastic endorsement from a much finer and better-known Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi.  And wouldn’t that newly arrived Spanish singer make an ideal Lady of the Lake?  This was Isabella Colbran, who Rossini would later marry.

The stage was set for the resulting triumph.

There were so many things wrong with the Rossini Opera Festival’s La donna del lago that it is hard to know where to begin.  With what I see as wrong-headedness of this team, I often prefer to write nothing at all.  But then I have a duty to readers.  And some of these mistakes may have long-reaching consequences. I hope I am wrong on this too.

It would be hard to find another conductor on today’s scene to stand alongside Michele Mariotti as a Rossiniano.  I have treasured memories of his many Pesaro performances.  But on tonight’s showing, all his faster tempi were too fast and his slower tempi too slow.  Rossini’s musical sense got burnt on the altar of exaggeration.  Never had Mariotti shown even a hint of such a trait.

He did make some concessions, most notably to Juan Diego Flórez (more of whom in a minute) and Rossini old hand and veteran, Michael Spyres, who was as solid as ever as Rodrigo, a role he had also sung in Pesaro in 2013.

The richly-voiced Armenian mezzosoprano, Varduhi Abrahanyan made a ROF debut in the trouser role of Malcolm.  But her noble efforts were continually undercut by the tempo being too slow or too fast for her magnificent instrument.  And I am writing here of a conductor who is normally respectful of individual voices.  What on earth possessed Mariotti?  I cannot believe what I am forced to write.

Everyone knows that Juan Diego Flórez is the undisputed Rossini tenor king.  Although I had heard he was having ‘vocal difficulties’ my past experiences refused to entertain such possibilities.  Yet it is undeniable.  He sounds forced and even strangulated on occasions, whether in the seeming simplicity of the opening cavatina or the more technical demands of the second act – o fiama soave.  I pray that his may be a temporary problem.  But there was evidence to suggest that it may not.

Salome Jicia of Georgia was seriously miscast as the Lady.  She simply does not have the vocal makeup to take on such a role.  Between wrong breathing and no notion of Italian diction she sounded like a duck out of water throughout.

These vocal disasters were set in a vulgar, meaningless, sloppy extravaganza of Damiano Michieletto’s staging.  This man was responsible for ROF’s witty La Scala di Seta (2009 and 2011) and La Gaza Ladra  (2007 and 2015).  But both those operas sparkle with COMEDY.  Try forcing that onto La donna del lago and you massacre the opera.  That is just what Mr Michieletto did.

Jack Buckley

3 thoughts on “Vocal Disasters Mar the ROF’s <i>La donna del lago</i>”

  1. I listened to the live stream of the first performance. Two things stood out for me about Flórez’s performance. First, that his voice was a bit rougher than it used to be. I imagined at the time that he might not be too pleased with the sound, but for me it was an improvement in that I have always disliked the nearly sinewave monotony of his tone. Second, for the first time ever in all the times listening to Flórez and watching HD performances, and seeing him in person — he moved me emotionally. He used his voice to project a variety of emotions that kept me wanting to hear more. I was wondering if coping with his changing voice had stimulated him to become more expressive. I welcome this improvement in emotional tone – previously he used to sound to me like a soprano kazoo. With a lot of very hidden charm. The charisma was out in the open that night; I hope it stays there.

  2. I was reporting on the Flórez second performance, but colleagues from the French and Italian press who had been present at the first, said there wasn’t much difference between the two. I’m sorry that I didn’t have time to stay to his recital which came on the last day. You say you found his voice a bit rougher than it used to be. That was my main concern. I have never ever noted any sinewy monotony of tone. And until this performance his expression had always been gloriously expressive. For me, the easy charm of delivery had been one of his defining qualities. But it was woefully absent in this ‘Donna del Lago’, as I tried to make clear.


Leave a Comment